Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Unreasoning Animal

I woke up this morning to discover, once again, that the citizens of Harmony have voted against the bare-bones school budget. I could leap headfirst into another rant about the short-sightedness of sacrificing our children's futures, the idiocy of believing that closing the school building is going to get you out of paying for education, and the cruelty of standing up in a budget meeting and suggesting that special-ed students should just be sent to juvenile prison. But the issue is larger than the schools. What I'm seeing is an engrained selfishness--my guns, my money, my property--that denies our communal responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Last night, after I came back from voting, I discovered that an acquaintance had posted a long, distressed announcement on Facebook. She wrote that her husband had taken their tax-return money and spent it all on booze and drugs. She told him she was filing for divorce, and apparently his response was to tell her "good luck" and refuse to support their three children. She's got no savings, and she's desperate. I do not know this woman very well, but I immediately responded and recommended a particular social service agency that works with families in bad situations. Meanwhile, most responses to her post were, essentially, "he's a fucking asshole"--true, no doubt, but not helpful.

What is the definition of help? In this case, it means finding someone who can guide a frightened person through the legal, financial, and emotional steps that will give her control over her life and the safety of her children. This is why social service agencies must be necessary features of our public life--because these are not skills that individuals in a crisis can dredge up from their own experiences.

Schools also offer help. Beyond their educational responsibilities, they feed hungry children, they identify kids who need glasses or hearing aids, they care for children who would otherwise be left alone or trapped with dangerous people. Americans depend on schools for so much more than teaching. Schools do crisis work, and often they do it invisibly. Damage them, and what happens to our citizenry?

It is hard for me to face the fact that there are people in this town who would rather imprison a child than educate him. But the town is a microcosm of the nation. Look at Donald Trump, look at Hulk Hogan, look at Wayne LaPierre, look at that horrible big-game dentist who murdered a sanctuary lion, look at any number of public personalities who preach the gospel of flippant individualism. Mark Twain would have a field day; imagine his pen burning a hole in the page! On the other hand, maybe he'd just be repeating himself:
Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal. Note his history. . . . It seems plain to me that whatever he is he is not a reasoning animal. His record is the fantastic record of a maniac. I consider that the strongest count against his intelligence is the fact that with that record back of him he blandly sets himself up as the head animal of the lot: whereas by his own standards he is the bottom one. 
--from "The Lowest Animal" (circa 1897)

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